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A bust of Walter Gropius at the Bauhaus-Universität (via

Cambridge, MA — There’s something that makes Harkness Commons — also known as the Harvard Graduate Center, also known as Harvard’s first Modern building — odd.

What is it?

There’s a big part of Gropius’s whole aesthetic-pedagogical mission that’s snug and cozy with Marx and bringing design within reach of the workers of the world. And then this architect with vaguely Marxist ideas about using design to reinforce community draws up blueprints plans for what is one of the more fabled elite institutions in the United States.

How did this proletarian architecture wind up palatable to an institution as well endowed as Harvard?

That’s one part of what I find strange, the other: was Walter Gropius a sellout?

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In its unending search for the best and the brightest, Harvard sought to bring Gropius under their roof to fix a broken Graduate School of Design — which, as late as the 1930s, still taught a pretty severely dated American variant of rococo Beaux Arts insanity too deeply ornamentally challenged to be very useful.

I think it helps to think of hiring Gropius as a kind of design-based fad diet at an institutional level. Drop the gold leaf cold turkey, get rid of that flabby plaster (it’s too hard to work it anyways!) and pick up some glass brick, pump some iron, install some cinematic single-pane picture windows.

Industrial materials like glass and steel, broad windows and glass bricks, were hallmarks of Gropius’s architectural vocabulary, which he developed partly in order to make the vocabulary simpler and in so doing, uh, redistribute? A little design wealth to everyone.

*   *   *

“Early Modern architects appropriated an existing and conventional industrial vocabulary without much adaptation,” writes Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in their landmark 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas. “The Bauhaus looked like a factory.” (And perhaps it’s no accident that that’s what Andy Warhol calls his studio some 45 years later … ).

They’re not wrong, of course. The Bauhaus did look like a factory, and much of its teaching centered on the idea of bringing posh design objects within the reach of anyone and everyone and especially the so-called masses, a designation that mostly meant the lower classes. What I find interesting is that Harvard wanted to ditch teaching students how to bake a Garnier Paris Opera wedding cake as early as 1937 when they chased after Walter Gropius, founding director of the Bauhaus, to run their design school.

So Harvard invited Gropius, with his penchant for function over beauty, and all his radical beliefs that, in design, aesthetics should follow or emerge from function. There are other details to the story that complicate it. They involved the Nazi ascension to power (they told Gropius he could go, then drained his bank accounts) but we won’t get into that now. Suffice it to say he agreed to do his best to rid American design of its tendency to replicate wedding cakes, and so he arrived in Cambridge ready to teach, but was as cash poor as a pauper.

*   *   *

The barely curved wall. (photo by the author)

In 1948, Harkness Commons (also known as the Harvard Graduate Center) was the first Modern building on the Harvard campus, going up around the same time as Le Corbusier’s slab and swoop United Nations tower by New York’s East River. Like the UN (both building and institution), the Gropius project was a noisy statement in a kind of argumentative, academic way. Its beige bricks upset a lot of people expecting more good old crimson when they cut the ribbon. This is one reason that I wanted to revisit Harkness Commons today, and one reason I was surprised to be so underwhelmed by its matter-of-fact design. The building seems too subtle and contextual to garner much attention, particularly in a sea of so much red brick. It suffers from fine-tuned expression using unglamorous materials and an architectural vocabulary that, today, we associate with factories or commercial nowhere land.

Harkness Commons is built with materials that we no longer read as expressive. To me, expressiveness in contemporary architecture is about jagged sheets of metal and glass performing sculptural feats of engineering, and there’s a utilitarian drabness to the Gropius building that’s out of place amid all the other matchy-matchy or sparkly design glitz that now speckles the campus.

The building — including its courtyard — harmoniously centers around a single broad curve (a signature Gropius touch) that unifies the structure and makes itself visible throughout. Somehow a curve just seems too delicate. And part of this, I think, is because we no longer have associations with built materials that even remotely relate to class consciousness or newness the way materials did at the beginning of the 20th century.

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Ian Epstein

Ian Epstein is a freelance writer and photographer living in New York City. He has worked for The...

3 replies on “Gropius in Cambridge”

  1. Hey I thought maybe it warrants a little bit of clarification that although the UN Tower (Secretariat) was based on Le Corbusier’s initial design, its execution departed from that and it was actually designed rather holistically by an international committee of architects, and the man in charge was Wallace Harrison, not the Corb.

  2. “…we no longer have associations with built materials that even remotely relate to class consciousness or newness the way materials did at the beginning of the 20th century…” unless you count sheetrock, flakeboard and vinyl, a sad commentary on progress, with a shift from materials with structural integrity to those with a purely visual purpose

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